The early modern period (1500-1800) was an age of maritime empire, associated with ships plying oceans and fierce struggles for control of the world’s sea lanes. But seas, and bodies of water more generally, served multiple purposes beyond their transformation into highways of exchange. They functioned as waterways that transported people, ideas, bacteria, and commodities both locally and across the globe. They served as a tool for thinking about the changing nature of the world. And they allowed people to think about the composition of the human body, its capacity for work, and the types of relationships that people forged with one another on and off land – on maps, in treatises, in private letters and in intricate projects of colonial construction.

Long before French writers surveyed the Mississippi, the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan – seat of one of the greatest American empires –flourished in a lacustrine matrix expertly elaborated by the Mexica. This exhibition explores the many ways in which water - from the five interconnected lakes of what would become Mexico City to the five Great Lakes of New France - touched people’s lives, even those who never set foot on a ship or visited a port town. On the prow of a ship or as a conduit for knowledge about the globe, water shaped encounters both real and imagined, in the early modern Americas and far beyond.

French writers on American waters

When early modern French writers encountered American waters, they marveled at their scale: many early accounts insisted on the enormity of American rivers and lakes, and although they sometimes suggest that the bodies of water they encountered in the Americas could be understood in relation to ones they knew at home – the Seine was frequently used as a comparative unit of measurement – they also found that their narratives floundered as they encountered these new bodies of water. To find their way through this new waterworld, French writers came to observe indigenous techniques and vocabularies with particular care.

Where some French accounts suggested the commercial and pleasurable potential of American waters, others worried over their disastrous potential for European projects in the New World, returning constantly to the difficulty of navigating in dangerous new conditions. This concern led to a real admiration for the indigenous construction and navigation of canoes and pirogues; even writers who scorned other indigenous practices regarded indigenous waterway techniques in a different light. The observation of this local, technical knowledge called for new water vocabularies, central to the cartographic and other projects of French explorers. 

Thinking through aquatic activity

From the sustenance provided by cod fished off the shores of Newfoundland, to the devastation wrought by seas during catastrophic weather events, such as the hurricane and tsunami that devastated Port Royal Jamaica in 1692, to the rivers running through the Americas that taught observers of maps and readers of chronicles about the world beyond their familiar borders, water created, destroyed, and explained the world. Atlases, tracts and treatises document water’s continued utility, both for early modern thinkers as they made sense of the metaphorical nature of humankind and for the people whose work involved traversing a new world.

Controlling the waters of Tenochtitlan

Perhaps no urban center in the Americas rivals Mexico-Tenochtitlan – the city-state of the Mexicas conquered by the Spanish in 1521 – in its founders’ and inhabitants’ master manipulation of the city’s waters and surrounding lands. In 1325, Mexico-Tenochtitlan was founded on a small island located in the lowest point of a basin surrounded by mountains. More than 50 rivers flowed into the basin, joining their waters with those of the five interconnected lakes in the area. The island’s location, along with the heavy rains of the summer months and the population’s dependence on agriculture, made it natural for people to construct their way of life around water, which was an essential component of the Mexicas’ political, economic, religious, and everyday life. In the Mexicas’ understanding of the world, water connected everything – human beings to gods, environment to politics, technology to ethics, and sustenance to violence – in ways that are only now beginning to be understood.

In particular, the maps of Mexico-Tenochtitlan displayed here were made in order to understand and control water and land in the area. According to Hernán Cortés’s letters to Charles V recounting the war of conquest of Mexico-Tenochtitlan, the water of the surrounding lakes and the complex hydraulic system created by the Aztecs and their subjects determined the fate of the conquest, achieved in 1521 after two months of daily fighting. According to Cortés, the side that was able to control the water would win the war, and every day at least 10,000 indigenous allies dedicated themselves to destroying the Aztecs’ canals, while the latter repaired them at night. After the conquest, the importance of water shifted to agriculture in terms of economic production, and to urban planning, since flooding became the most prevalent problem in the colonial city, which suffered many floods, the worst one starting in 1629 and lasting for five years.


This exhibition was curated by Ivonne del Valle (University of California, Berkeley), Katherine Ibbett (Trinity College, University of Oxford), and Molly Warsh (University of Pittsburgh).